21 Ways Architects Can Work Smarter, Not Harder

In their day-to-day work, architects face a lot of distractions and challenges: managing clients, collaborators and contractors; keeping up to date with the latest software and technologies; drafting planning applications and paperwork; and if you’re lucky, even getting to design some things in between. Originally published by ArchSmarter, this post offers 21 tips on how to maximize your productivity and minimize unnecessary work.

Project schedules are getting shorter and shorter. Building types are getting more complex. We already work hard but there are only so many hours in the day. As architects, we need to work smarter, not harder. How can we maximize our effectiveness and our efficiency? How can we manage the increasing flow of information? How can we design better, faster?

Here are 21 ways you can work smarter, not harder:

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Plan Your Work

1. Understand the difference between “effective” and “efficient”. Effective is doing the right things. Efficient is doing things in the right manner. Both are important, but you need to be doing the right things first before you can do them in the right manner. Combine the two and you’ll be really working smarter, not harder.

2. Remember the 80/20 principle. Eighty percent of your results come from just twenty percent of your effort. Focus on results, not work. More hours does not always equal more results.

3. Outline your process. Yes, every project is unique, but the tasks and milestones in each project are pretty similar. Outlining the process helps you see where to eliminate steps or make the process more efficient. Mind Maps are a great tool for this exercise.

4. Use checkists. Most project management software allows you to create checklists and to-do lists. Once you’ve outlined your process, you can create checklists for each stage of the project. What are your standard deliverables? What problems do you typically run into? What often gets missed? Take a look at Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto, for practical advice on creating and managing checklists.

4th Dimension Concrete Wall Clock / 22 Design Studio

Focus Your Time

Time is the one resource that cannot be created or stored. It’s our most precious commodity. Guard your time and use it effectively – you can’t make any more.

5. Time is the one resource that cannot be created or stored. It’s our most precious commodity. Guard your time and use it effectively – you can’t make any more.

6. Fill your time jar with the big rocks first.

7. Try working fewer hours, not more. This forces you to focus on the most important tasks. Plus, research shows that working more than forty hours is downright unproductive.

8. Keep a time log. Record how you spend your time during the course of a typical week. This log should be more detailed than a timesheet. You want to record everything you do during the course of the work day. Writing an email to a client, surfing the Internet – record it in the log. Do this for a whole week and you’ll have a really good picture of where your time goes.

9. Eat the frog. Mark Twain said if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, then nothing worse will happen to you all day. Tackle the thing you really don’t want to do first thing in the morning, when you’re fresh. Get it done, then you can move on to the tasks you actually enjoy.

10. Batch related tasks. If you’re working on multiple projects, try working on similar tasks in a series rather than jumping from project to project. This will save you time and energy since focused on a single task.

11. Cultivate your flow state. As architects and designers, the high value work we deliver requires large chunks of time.  We need to get immersed into a problem to really understand it. This is how we do our best creative work.

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Manage Your Information

12. Minimize meetings. Before scheduling a meeting, ask yourself: “Why are we having this meeting? Is it necessary? What is the objective?” More meetings means less work is getting done. Use an agenda to state the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting. Keep the attendees to the absolute minimum and set a fixed time limit.  If you need to meet regularly with your project team, consider a stand-up meeting.

13. Use message filters in your email program to route incoming emails to appropriate folders. I use Thunderbird for my email. I created a filter that looks at incoming messages for the words “unsubscribe”. If an email has those words, it’s likely a newsletter or email list. It’s not an urgent email from a client or colleague. Thunderbird moves these messages to a “Read Later” folder. This keeps my inbox fairly manageable. If you work on many projects, you could create filters using email addresses.

14. Don’t check your email. Process it instead.

15. Turn off email notifications on your computer and phone. It’s just an invitation for distraction. Like we really need more of those…

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Know Your Tools

16. What’s in your toolbox? Take an inventory of the tools you use (both physical and digital) on a daily basis. Check out this example of a great tool inventory. Compare each tool to the job you need it to do. Is the tool the right fit for the job? It’s better to have a few tools that you really know how to use than a huge toolbox with tools gathering dust.

17. When is the last time you had any formal software training? If you’re like me, you probably just picked up the software and started learning it years ago. The problem is that we get stuck in old ways of working , especially if you don’t use the program on a daily basis. That’s why I started the Excel for Architects series. I realized I didn’t know how to use any of the advanced features in Excel so I set out to learn them.

18. Use keyboard shortcuts. Most programs have keyboard shortcuts for commands. In many cases, you can even program your own shortcuts. You can shave off a lot of time over the course of the day by using fewer clicks to get your work done.

© ROB/ARCH Workshop, Rotterdam

Automate Repetitive Tasks

19. Create templates. Do you send similar emails frequently? Save a copy of the email as a template. Do you use similar documents from one project to the next? Save a copy as a template. Same goes with CAD and BIM. Create a template BIM file that contains all of your standard sheets and details. You can save a ton of time and reduce errors by standardizing the documents you produce. Reuse everything.

20. Customize your tools to work the way you work. Most modern software is flexible. You can customize the software using the program’s API or Application Programming Interface. With a little elbow grease and some programming know-how, get under the hood of your software and make it work better and faster.

21. Use macros to automate repetitive tasks. Why do the grunt work when your computer can do it for you? Yes, it takes some programming, but a little investment in developing your skills can save you lots of time down the road. The more frequently you do a task, the greater the time savings. You can check out some of my free Revit macros here and here.

© Robert C. Lautman

One Last Thought

Remember to have fun. We all got into this profession because of our love for designing and building. Research has shown that maintaining a sense of play in our work is essential to reaching our full potential. Not all of our work is fun, but approaching it creatively and with an open mind to working smarter, not harder can yield better results and more satisfaction.

ArchSmarter was founded by Middletown, CT-based architect Michael Kilkelly in 2014, and aims to help architects and designers work smarter by providing great content on productivity, software customization and product reviews. You can see more from ArchSmarter at their website.

Images of architect’s notebook, architecture tools and email inbox via Shutterstock.com